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Robert Wrigley
08-17-07

 Poems - Bio- Interview

 

At the Beach


What are they, those burrowing crustaceans,
the ones my son and I unbeach each summer
building sandcastles? Thumb-large
helmets with dainty, iridescent feet
and as far as I can see no eyes,
no head, no front or back at all, only
the shove and pull of the waves,
or only the quick, attentive gulls, who love them
just as they would love us, my son and me, if they could,
and who, the truth be told, cannot name us either.


Lives of the Animals


One neighbor's got a heeler

named Job; another's got just
a snapshot or two, a frou-frou,
nappy poodle, yapping
and vanished without a trace.

Cats, if they survive
to adulthood, fare better.
though there was an honest shortage
of kittens one summer,
thanks to the hordes of owls and hawks.

Then there are the weeds,
the stick-tights and teasels,
brain-festering cheatgrass depth charges
down the ears, the eye-slashing
barely visible star thistle spines

There are bored boys
with BB and pellet guns and drivers
on the country roads
with nowhere to swerve to.
There's terrible heat and terrible cold.

For the rest of us—the biped,
broad-nailed, featherless master race—
there's only black ice and bad driving,
deep fats and a government's erector set
experiments with nuclear bombs

***

Then there's the annual spring plague
of ticks, and the nightly sessions
on the living room floor,
grooming like chimps. First,
the dogs, then the cats,

then the kids, then last of all,
later, the two of us, the tender skin
at the base of the scalp,
the tenderer skin of the crotch,
and once, my lover

plucked from the tip of my ear,
with a divot of skin,
a tick already fastened on
and fattening with my blood.
She kissed the wound there

and did not stop
kissing, but held the tick
between her thumb and forefinger
all through the love that followed,
then expelled what I'd left her

in the toilet, wrapped the tick
in a wad of tissue,
dropped it there too,
and came to bed.
All that night I was moving

***

in my sleep, running the dank
weedy channels after pheasants
or stalking shrews and voles
and meadow mice that abound here.
All that night the scent of skin

was on me, the scent of bodies
opened toward the blood.
By morning I'd have sworn
it was all a dream. I was
the only human animal awake

at that hour. In a wedge of sun
the cats lay tangled
and rumbling. The dog's tail thumped,
a tentative knock as I rose.
But there was the speck

on my pillow, and in the pale light
of the bathroom, a black mole
afloat in a sea of dross
and sodden tissue. I held my finger
down to the surface, and the tick scrambled on.

Now the dog's up and yawning,
the cats yammer for their food.
True to form, there's Job
outside, his hide a matted mass
of burrs and thorns,

***

behind his ear a cluster
of ticks swollen fat as grapes.
I call him to the door. He's meek
and grateful for attention.
I scratch his chin

and nestle that rescued tick
deep in the fur around his neck.
I make coffee. I slice a peach
and take my breakfast on the porch,
where the cats rub figure-eights

around my ankles, where the dogs
await a nibble of toast. The sun is warm
and the breeze is cool. This is the world,
my brothers, we enter yet again,
our arms flung open wide.

 

-from The Lives of Animals 

 

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 Poems - Bio- Interview

 

Robert Wrigley was born February 27, 1951, in East St. Louis, Illinois, Illinois, and grew up in Collinsville, a coal mining town. He received his B.A. (with honors) in English Language & Literature at Southern Illinois University in 1974, and his M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Montana in 1976, where he studied with Madeline DeFrees, John Haines, and Richard Hugo.

His collections of poetry include Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems (Penguin, 2006); Lives of the Animals (2003); Reign of Snakes (1999), winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award; In the Bank of Beautiful Sins (1995), winner of the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award and Lenore Marshall Award finalist; What My Father Believed (1991); Moon in a Mason Jar (1986); and The Sinking of Clay City (1979).

His work has also been published in numerous anthologies and literary journals. Wrigley's awards and honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Idaho State Commission on the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize, the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine, the Wagner Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Theodore Roethke Award from Poetry Northwest, and two Pushcart Prizes. From 1987 until 1988 he served as the state of Idaho's writer-in-residence.

Wrigley lives with his wife, the writer Kim Barnes, and their children, on the Clearwater River in Idaho. He has taught at Lewis-ClarkCollege College, at the University of Oregon of Oregon, twice at the University of Montana, where he returned to hold the Richard Hugo Chair in Poetry, and at Warren College. He is the Director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Idaho.

 

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Poems - Bio- Interview

 

 

An Interview with Robert Wrigley  by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum


Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “Lives of the Animals” strikes me as a poem largely about nature's possession of man and how, once the natural realm has latched onto us, we cannot simply remove it. It also strikes me as a poem that addresses the oftentimes conflicting forces between man and woman and man and the natural world. I’m thinking of the tick “already fastened on and fattening” with the man’s blood and of the “nightly session on the living room floor” with the speaker's wife, which leaves the tick seemingly doomed.

What I find particularly remarkable about “Lives of the Animals” is that even though the man becomes the tick’s salvation— transporting it from certain death to a sort of paradise— the conflict between man, woman, and nature is resolved…but only briefly.

Do you see the poem as a way to briefly resolve or to make sense of the natural order and the conflicted state of the human who lives within and without that order? Is this the “intention” of this particular poem? Do you feel that your poems typically have a particular “intention” or are “about” anything in particular?

Robert Wrigley: Yes. By which I mean, it seems to me that poems—good ones—don’t offer up answers but provoke questions. They’re mediations between experience and contemplation. Sometimes the poet has some “intent” in mind at the outset, but more often it’s the poem that determines its own intent. Without saying too much about the poem—which is to say, without offering up any sort of “official” interpretation, I’d say that the poem is concerned with the country called intimacy, everything from family grooming (for practical reasons) to love-making to the extension of affection or acknowledgement to the animal world, represented here not only the by the cats and the dogs, but by the tick itself. Mark but this tick, I might have written, but the speaker had not need to make his case to the others involved.

AMK: “At the Beach” is a cool poem with a number of circularities working all at the same time: the burrowing and unbeaching of the crustaceans, their eyeless and headless helmets, the father and son, the waves that both “pull and shove,” and of course the gulls who “can not name us either,” which reflects back on the first line of the poem.
Is this circular nature of the poem by design or an effect that was discovered as the poem was being written?

RW: You read very well. The circularities, as you aptly call them, are the poem’s discoveries. The poem means to reflect circularities of all of nature, of life. Just as I said above, I didn’t have this in mind when I began the poem, but the poem found its way there. The map was language—image and sound.

AMK: I tend to think of “At the Beach” as a reflection on that certain loss the father feels; of that desire to be more like the son who doesn’t give a second thought to the little creatures he digs up and, in effect, sends to their deaths.

Reflecting on the first three lines of the poem, I'm wondering if this poem isn’t an ars poetica of sorts— a poem about the writing of poetry itself— and about how language so often fails us, ultimately bringing us back to the same question(s) we set out to answer in the first place. Do you see this poem as a poem about the failure of language? Is it fair to expect so much of language?

RW: Sure it’s an ars poetica. I probably sensed that as I closed in on the poem as it now stands, and while poems about poems tend to irritate me, an ars poetica is different. The fact that the poem in some way enacts or reenacts its own composition is a subsidiary benefit. And after all, the poet’s job is to say as much, as many things, as possible in the fewest words.

AMK: My last few questions regard your larger body of work. When I read your work, it’s hard not to read the “I” in this poem as, in fact, you, the poet. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on your poetry and the first person. Do your poems usually employ a speaker or should we read them as personal accounts? Likewise, when you read contemporary poetry, do you think of the “I” as the actual poet who writes the poem or as an outside speaker who the poet presents to us?

RW: I heard the fiction writer Ron Carlson once say of this stories that they “are all based on personal experience, whether I’ve had it or not.” Bingo. The speaker in my poems is not me but is often some “version” of me, some character I might be said to be based on. Many of my poems feature a third person protagonist or main character that is equally some version of me. What’s the difference? Not much. I too get sick of the first person in poems, especially when the poems are mere testimonials about the poet’s vast sensitivities or sufferings. That’s horseshit. On the other hand, if the poem is real and vital, the point of view or the vantage of the voice is just what it ought to be. I have that hope about my poems all the time.

AMK: Finally, what are your thoughts on the artifice/aesthetic of individual poems within a book and of the book as a work of art in and of itself? Meaning, does each poem exist on its own plane or is each poem a spoke in the wheel. Does each poem act as a microcosm for the book, or is each poem an independent entity. Is it, perhaps, both?

RW: Both. Frost purportedly said “If a book of poems contains 24 poems, the book itself is the 25th.” I try very very hard to write “books” that are just that, but finally it’s individual poems that last, that get canonized. Go down the hall in any English Department and stick your head in any doorway and ask the professor inside to name three books by Robert Frost (not counting the complete poems). Few will be able to do it, and no one worked harder to make his books cohesive, fully realized wholes than Frost did. In other words, it’s a kind of cruel fate for poets. Then again, it makes them noble and better looking, don’t you think? Seriously, a poem sometimes can function as the heart of a book, but when it does, you have to sort of wonder about the poems around it, if they’re worthy.

 



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Robert Wrigley